Nissan Pulsar GTI-R. Godzilla’s little brother


A little brother has never been so punchy...

The early nineties were actually something of a high point for fans of Nissan.

Quite apart from the fact that expanding production at Nissan’s Sunderland plant meant that you could buy one and remain patriotic, the decade of Britpop and Cool Britannia was also a bit of a Nissan purple patch. Well, it was if you could look past the styling and enjoy the mechanical performance underneath.

The dowdy Bluebird (the minicabber’s favourite) gave way, in 1990, to the fresh-faced new Primera. That was a sensible, four-door Japanese saloon that was 9gasp, shock, horror) better to drive than almost anything from a European competitor. Plus it would last longer (minicabbers, in fairness, would eventually come to love it too). Then there was the Skyline GT-R, the R32 model. Introduced in 1989, this was the epitome of ‘boxy but good’ — a square-rigged, square-arched coupe with Saturn V performance (Nissan claimed 276hp as standard but it was way, way more than that in reality), the Skyline dominated the race-tracks and pub tables of the world, and became known as Godzilla, cementing a reputation for performance that has never gone away.

Godzilla, though, had a little brother. No, not Godzooky, from the dreadful Saturday morning cartoon, but a be-winged and turbo’ed hatchback more suited to Saturday nights on dark roads. This was the Pulsar GTI-R, and in a world already besotted with the Lancia Delta Integrale, and Ford Escort Cosworth, the hot Nissan came in punching hard.

Pulsar rear

The Pulsar GTI-R was originally developed only for the Japanese market, and was really a homologation special, to allow Nissan to enter Group A rallying. (It did so too, but the Pulsar came off second best on the stages, with a best result of third on the 1992 Swedish Rally in the hands of none other than Stig Blomqvist.) The basic N14 model Pulsar was a pretty bland-looking device, basically an amount of hatchback that would pass incognito on any suburban street, but Nissan added to that a monstrous rear wing big enough to work as a bookshelf and a distended and vented bonnet bulge that looked as if the engine was trying to climb its way out of the car and headbutt you. As well it might — the Pulsar GTI-R developed 227hp from its SR20DET four-cylinder, 2.0-litre turbo. That’s about the same as a contemporary Escort Cosworth, but the devil is in the detail. In spite of the standard four-wheel drive system (a 50:50 permanent split, not adjustable like the Skyline’s) the Pulsar’s power-to-weight ratio far outstripped the mighty Ford. 189hp per tonne compared to 173hp per tonne for the Cossie. And all of that put to the tarmac through tiny 14-inch wheels. (For reference, the current 350hp Ford Focus RS develops a measly 169hp per tonne…)

Pulsar cabin

Contemporary performance figures for the time were 5.4secs 0-60mph, and a top speed of 143mph, but that’s for a standard model. Nissan did, after many requests, eventually officially import some Pulsars to the UK, badged as Sunny for a reason that no-one quite remembers, but these were slightly detuned, and produced only 217hp. Still quite a lot for the early nineties, but not the full shilling, as the saying goes. Mind you, you’d be hard pressed to find a standard, original one now. Almost all have been tuned at some point, with 260hp easily and reliably extracted from that tough little four-pot engine, and the car’s chassis easily able to cope with the extra thrust.

A Nissan that handles? Oh yes. Forget your school-run Qashqais and driving school Micras, back in the nineties the Pulsar GTI-R was one of the best-handling cars around. It lacked, perhaps, the ultra-sweet steering of the rival Lancia Delta Integrale, but many were happy to make that compromise in favour of electrics that actually carried current and a body not made of shortbread. The GTI-R was tough, pugnacious, agile, and blindingly quick down a wet, twisty backroad, as befits is rallying heritage.

Pulsar Rally

If you want one, be quick. There aren’t many left, and certainly not many left in unmolested form. The nineties were great for many, many reasons but for us, one of the best is a hatchback Nissan shopping trolley with a huffing turbo and a wild wing.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.